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*Fiji Sun columnist Graham Davis is a Fiji born and educated international-award-journalist. He blogs at grubsheet.com.au
The most high profile legal case in Fiji since that of George Speight got underway in the High Court in Suva yesterday -the long awaited corruption trial of former Prime Minister, Laisenia Qarase.
Right up until the last minute, Qarase’s lawyers have been trying to get the proceedings deferred on the grounds that he hasn’t been able to find an affordable senior counsel from overseas to represent him.
But Justice Priyantha Fernando ruled that Qarase has had ample time to get proper representation and ordered that the trial proceed as scheduled.
It’s been set down for four weeks.
The charges relate to Fijian Holdings – a major corporate player that is owned by several layers of the iTaukei establishment and was originally set up to bolster the economic prospects of indigenous people.
It involves allegations over share dealings when Qarase was a director of Fijian Holdings.
He denies six counts of abuse of office and three counts of discharge of duty with respect to a property in which he has a private interest.
The case has been brought by FICAC, the Fiji Independent Commission against Corruption, which has engaged two prosecuting barristers from Hong Kong – senior counsel Michael Blanchflower and assistant Elizabeth Yang.
Blanchflower is a heavy hitter at the Hong Kong bar, a former Assistant Solicitor General, Justice Department lawyer and a specialist in money laundering who drafted HK’s anti-money laundering laws.
When he arrived in the country last week, Blanchflower reduced the number of witnesses for the prosecution from 14 to 10 and the number of documents from more than 100 to around 68.
He said it would make the case “leaner” and better focused on the main issues.
Up against them is the Suva barrister, Tupou Draunidalo, who’s been drafted in at the eleventh hour after Qarase said he was unable to find an affordable senior counsel in Australia or New Zealand willing to represent him.
Qarase’s lawyers unsuccessfully argued that they needed more time to get across the detail of the case and will have been furiously burning the midnight oil trying to get up to speed.
A senior figure in legal circles, Draunidalo is a forthright human rights advocate and political activist who strongly condemned Voreqe Bainimarama’s 2006 takeover.
Draunidalo is also celebrated for being the daughter of the late chief and deputy prime minister, Adi Kuini Speed, and step-daughter of Timoci Bavadra, the Labour prime minister deposed by Sitiveni Rabuka’s coup in 1987.
Her father, the late Savenaca Draunidalo, served as one of Laisenia Qarase’s cabinet ministers until he too was deposed in the takeover of 2006.
A former colonel in the military, he was killed in a fishing accident the following year.
So a Sri Lankan judge, a Hong Kong senior counsel for the prosecution and a respected and feisty local barrister for the defence.
The stage is set for a compelling drama in the Suva High Court.